As dusk set in on a balmy night last week, the circular glass facade of the German parliament’s ultramodern Luders building was transformed into a giant video-projection screen. Electronic beats blared, and simulated fireworks and lasers lit up the night sky. Sitting across the Spree River, just beneath the restored Reichstag building, the audience of mostly young Germans smoked cigarettes and chatted in hushed tones.
No, this wasn’t some techno-music festival sponsored by the German state. It was a multimedia spectacle dedicated to celebrating a century of German parliamentarianism. Titled “To the German People,” the 30-minute program chronicles the birth of German parliamentary democracy, its death at the hands of National Socialists and its postwar resurrection—culminating in reunification and the return of the Bundestag to its historic seat in Berlin.
“To the German People” is an expression of what the German political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller calls constitutional patriotism. It’s a model of national belonging well-suited to societies, like Germany’s, that have built liberal institutions on the ruins left behind by totalitarian storms. The idea is that civic loyalty in such societies should be directed, not to any grand national narrative—which in Germany’s case is forever tainted by tyranny and mass murder—but to the norms and values of the new constitutional order.
The sight of Germans watching their own humdrum parliamentary debates—set to upbeat music and lasers—might strike some Americans as odd. Yet it makes sense in a context where the state consciously endeavors to remind the public of the horrific moral lapses of the past and of the dear price paid for the liberal-democratic present.
Friendlier Times: Candidate Obama’s speech to Berliners in July 2008. Getty Images “To the German People” also emphasizes America’s role in Germany’s journey from Nazism and Communism to constitutional democracy. Then-Mayor Ernst Reuter’s famous speech beseeching the world to “look upon this city” during the 1948 Soviet blockade of West Berlin is followed by archival footage of the American-led airlift. Then comes Ronald Reagan’s eternally goosebump-inducing call to “tear down this wall!”—another reminder of the emotional bonds tying German freedom and U.S. foreign policy.
Those bonds have been strained lately, bringing Berlin-Washington relations to their lowest point in a generation. “There’s not the same passion between Germany and the U.S.,” Jonathan Marcus, a writer and political analyst, tells me—an understatement given that German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this month expelled the CIA station chief at the U.S. Embassy in a shocking move.
Superficially, the main cause of the rupture is revulsion, shared across the political spectrum here, at U.S. intelligence-gathering and counterterror activities. Revelations of hamfisted American spying on Germany’s security apparatus and its leaders, including Ms. Merkel, have scandalized the country. “The outrage is real,” Daniel-Dylan Bohmer, a foreign-news editor at Die Welt, says. “At the popular level, the question is: Why does the government react when the chancellor’s phone was tapped—when nothing happened while the Americans read our emails and tapped our phones?”
The Glenn Greenwald-Edward Snowden vision of a hegemonic Washington listening in on billions of private conversations, while false, has taken hold of the German imagination. Patrick Sensburg, the Christian Democrat heading the Bundestag’s inquiry into American data-gathering, went so far as to suggest in an interview recently that the government might revert to using typewriters to confound NSA snooping. “Yes, no joke,” he said.
The rift extends to the Ukraine crisis. Germany’s extensive energy and economic ties to Russia have placed it at the forefront of the Western appeasement camp. Yet Berlin’s reluctance to confront Vladimir Putin isn’t solely driven by cold realpolitik reasoning. Here, too, there is an underlying cultural logic at work. It’s the belief, Mr. Bohmer says, that “if you behave peacefully, peace is what you will get—forgetting that we were sponsored to be the dressing window for the West.”
Something may have gone awry with Germany’s experiment in constitutional patriotism. Perhaps the postwar history presented in “To the German People” and other such commemorative documents is a little too sanitized, eliding, for example, the harsh steps—including use of then-state-of-the-art surveillance technology—taken by West Germany to crack down on the Red Army Faction and other extremist groups in the 1960s and ’70s. And Germans too often forget that American military vigilance granted them the space to conduct their constitutional experiment in the first place.
In the arc of history, a German state that sees its primary mission as the protection of hard-won democratic gains is a rare, almost-miraculous thing. But the country’s political class can’t afford the illusion that Germany’s ambivalence and pacifism are what allowed it to prosper in safety after the war. “For us, the very fact that a democracy faces a moral dilemma means something is wrong,” Mr. Marcus says. But there is no wishing away the dilemmas.
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